Time Magazine captured the moment. It was a photo op at an elementary school in Rochester, NY. Rick Lazio was beginning to slip in the polls as he ran against Hillary Clinton, but it seemed he still had a chance. As he visited the school, a little girl said it all. "I watched you on NBC last night--why were you fighting with Mrs. Clinton?"
At the debate the previous night, Lazio had tried every applause line that had tested so well with small Republican partisan groups. Then he demonstrated with physical posturing his disdain, at one point walking toward her, crowding her in front of a televised audience. Lazio not only lost, he was crushed.
Pointless public snubs seldom work out. Senator John Tower was way ahead of his opponent, Robert Krueger, in 1978. But at a debate appearance in Houston, Tower pointedly refused to shake the man's hand. Tower won, but by a razor thin margin that nobody had predicted.
Twelve years later, hyper-rich oil man Clayton Williams had an extreme lead over his opponent Ann Richards. Polls suggested a 20 point difference. After one debate, Williams publicly made a show of refusing to shake her hand. That blew the lead. He suffered a narrow defeat.
Boorishness almost never gains points. What loses elections also loses international competition. President Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lost ground for the United States in 1954 when he refused to shake the hand of China's Zhou Enlai. Successful Presidents have since shaken the hands of Zhou, Mao, and Soviet dictators from Stalin onward.
President Obama has been the target of criticism for shaking the hand of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Obama had already been attacked by conservatives for his publicly stated willingness to negotiate with adversaries on the basis of self-interest rather than trust. The now famous handshake is seen as emblematic of a new approach that conservatives see as dangerous.
Obama defends the approach succinctly:
The whole notion was ... somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it, because it doesn't make sense.
History, evidence, and logic, and most US citizens seem to support this President. But debates are never over as long as folks are willing to argue. In this case, lack of sense seems to be no hindrance at all.
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Clayton Williams started the race with almost every advantage known to politics. His campaign was well-funded, he had a strong grass-roots organization, and his opponent was coming off a brutal, hotly contested primary season. But with unerring precision, Williams swept each of these obstacles aside, and out of tranquility wrought a smoking, chaotic ruin. The snub was the icing on the cake. He'd already pretty much lost by that point.
Still and all, the point remains that politeness never cost anyone anything. Being polite doesn't mean rolling over. It just means not giving offense needlessly.
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